THE suzi feay COLUMN
A few months ago I found myself in a noisy restaurant sitting next to a man I'd never met before. There was a series on the telly which was endeavouring to explain the Bosnian civil war to everyone thinking: "Oh it's too complicated ... I'll never catch up now." Had I really not been watching it? he enquired excitedly. It was very good. For the first time, he understood what was going on over there! And he began, utilising mats, cruet sets, forks and spoons, to explain it all to me.

Nodding mechanically, I slid into uh-huh, uh-huh mode. I am trying to preserve the delicate bloom of my ignorance on matters Bosnian. I like to think my lack of opinions or even emotions on the topic, is not laziness but as a sort of intellectual hygiene, a necessary corrective to our general compulsion to manufacture beliefs about things which do not concern us.

In his 1811 pamplet, The Necessity of Atheism, P B Shelley argued that belief is involuntary. When a proposition is presented to the mind, "it perceives the agreement or disagreement of the ideas of which it is composed" (the instantaneous "yeah, that's right" or "nah, that's bollocks" effect). Yet so many people, mused the youthful PBS, "falsely ... imagine that the mind is active in belief, that belief is an act of volition, in consequence of which it may be regulated by the mind; pursuing this mistake they have attached a degree of criminality to disbelief, of which in its nature it is incapable; it is equally so of merit."

Well, perhaps he should have tried a bit harder to believe in God, though English Literature is on the whole grateful that this undergraduate jibe got him thrown out of Oxford and launched onto a collision course with priests, kings, fathers and authority figures of all kinds. Belief is in fact an extraordinarily elastic concept which can indeed be modifed at will. Take Alice Through the Looking-Glass:

" 'I can't believe that!" said Alice. 'Can't you?' said the White Queen in a pitying tone. 'Try again. Draw a long breath and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying ... one can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age I always did it for half-an-hour each day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!' "

Prof Geach of Leeds, whose tortuous 9am Logic lectures I used to attend, was fond of pointing out philosophical references in the works of Lewis Carroll, who used his beguiling nonsense books to satirise his Oxford contemporaries. This passage is supposed to allude to one W G Ward, fellow of Balliol, who is meant "to have expressed a wish that an infallible Papal document might arrive for him to believe every morning before breakfast with The Times."

This is a clear example of an intelligent person adhering to an illogical belief for quixotic emotional reasons. We're all White Queens when we believe, for example, that smearing green gunk from a tube will break down our fat deposits. Some beliefs are wish-fulfilment, others simply erroneous. For some time I thought Michael Bogdanov and Peter Bogdanovich were the same person, thus creating the enticing compound figure of a Hollywood director who fell in love with a Playboy pin-up, then was so devastated when her psychotic, jealous husband murdered her that he had to come over here to direct with the English Shakespeare Company.

The Buddha would have been quite impressed with the apocryphal Question Time guest who said languidly, breaking all the rules of the format: "I'm sorry, I haven't bothered to form an opinion on the subject." Buddhist lore extols "Right Views": not fundamentalist doctrine, just the recognition that certain beliefs, consciously cultivated, promote a healthful mental attitude. Who cares if they're "true"? Just as medieval students of rhetoric were expected to be able to argue equally persuasively on both sides of a debate, so Buddhists are encouraged to break down mental categories and float free of needless attitudinising.

All of which is an immensely long-winded way of saying that I have changed my views on the IRA. Of course, times have changed: there was something immensely poignant about Bobby Sands, the Gandhi of the Republican movement - never has someone with a naff Seventies haircut ever acheived such moral grandeur.

Then the IRA decided it was far better off killing other people than sacrificing its own members and went back to business as usual. And there's a world of difference between Gerry Adams, the dignified and indomitable champion of his despised people, and laughing Gezza, cruisin' and a-schmoozin' with the slugs of Noraid. I found being a rabid supporter- with the attitude that people who got their heads blown off were merely the unfortunate eggs in the Republican omelette, for example - did not go down too well in polite company, so I quickly learned to dissemble. Rather too well in fact, over the years. Just about the time of the peace agreement I found to my surprise I had entirely reversed my views and begun to mutter "No Surrender".

Is the belief that belief is involuntary itself voluntary? Or vice versa? "Nohow! Contrariwise!" as Tweedles Dum and Dee would have put it.